Tag Archives: Rachel Cusk

Putting the Shaken House in its New Order: My Year in Reading-2018

There is no doubt that this was a tough year by any measure. The news, in my country and around the world. was depressing, scary and, at times, downright ridiculous. Personally, I had some very high highs and some very low lows. The summer was particularly hot and oppressive. And this semester was unusually demanding at work. More than any other year I can remember, I took solace and comfort by retreating into my books. I have listed here the books, essays and translations that kept me busy in 2018. War and Peace, Daniel Deronda, The Divine Comedy and Stach’s three volume biography of Kafka were particular favorites, but there really wasn’t a dud in this bunch.

Classic Fiction and Non-Fiction (20th Century or earlier):

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (trans. Louise and Alymer Maude)

The Bachelors by Adalbert Stifter (trans. David Bryer)

City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (trans. Nora Seligman Favorov)

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

A Dead Rose by Aurora Caceres (trans. Laura Kanost)

Nothing but the Night by John Williams

G: A Novel by John Berger

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

Artemisia by Anna Banti (trans. Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo)

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

Flesh by Brigid Brophy

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

The Colour of Memory by Geoff Dyer

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky (trans. by Ignat Avsey)

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Lyric Novella by Annmarie Schwarzenbach (trans. Lucy Renner Jones)

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (trans. Allen Mandelbaum)

The Achilleid by Statius (trans. Stanley Lombardo)

The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter by Matei Calinescu (trans. Adriana Calinescu and Breon Mitchell)

The Blue Octavo Notebooks by Franz Kafka (trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins)

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir (trans. James Kirkup)

Journey into the Mind’s Eye: Fragments of an Autobiography by Lesley Blanch

String of Beginnings by Michael Hamburger

Theseus by André Gide (trans. John Russell)

Contemporary Fiction and Non-Fiction:

Kafka: The Early Years by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Kafka: The Decisive Years by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Kafka: The Years of Insight by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Villa Amalia by Pascal Quignard (trans. Chris Turner)

All the World’s Mornings by Pascal Quignard (trans. James Kirkup)

Requiem for Ernst Jundl by Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Roslyn Theobald)

Bergeners by Tomas Espedal (trans. James Anderson)

Kudos by Rachel Cusk

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

The Years by Annie Ernaux (trans. Alison L. Strayer)

He Held Radical Light by Christian Wiman

The Unspeakable Girl by Giorgio Agamben and Monica Ferrando (trans. Leland de la Durantaye)

The Adventure by Giorgio Agamben (trans. Lorenzo Chiesa)

Essays and Essay Collections:

Expectations by Jean-Luc Nancy

Errata by George Steiner

My Unwritten Books by George Steiner

The Poetry of Thought by George Steiner

A Handbook of Disappointed Fate by Anne Boyer

“Dante Now: The Gossip of Eternity” by George Steiner

“Conversation with Dante” by Osip Mandelstam

“George Washington”, “The Bookish Life,” and “On Being Well-Read” and “The Ideal of Culture” by Joseph Epstein

“On Not Knowing Greek,” “George Eliot,” “Russian Thinking” by Virginia Woolf

Poetry Collections:

The Selected Poems of Donald Hall

Exiles and Marriage: Poems by Donald Hall

H.D., Collected Poems

Elizabeth Jennings, Selected Poems and Timely Issues

Eavan Boland, New Selected Poems

Omar Carcares, Defense of the Idol

The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

Analicia Sotelo, Virgin

Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Prose and Letters (LOA Edition)

Michael Hamburger: A Reader, (Declan O’Driscoll, ed.)

I also dipped into quite a few collections of letters such as Kafka, Kierkegaard, Kleist, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc. that I won’t bother to list here. I enjoyed reading personal letters alongside an author’s fiction and/or biography.

My own Translations (Latin and Greek):

Vergil, Aeneid IV: Dido’s Suicide

Statius, Silvae IV: A Plea for Some Sleep

Horace Ode 1.5: Oh Gracilis Puer!

Horace, Ode 1.11: May You Strain Your Wine

Propertius 1.3: Entrusting One’s Sleep to Another

Seneca: A Selection from “The Trojan Women”

Heraclitus: Selected Fragments

Cristoforo Landino, Love is not Blind: A Renaissance Latin Love Elegy

As George Steiner writes in his essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: “Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers. We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order.” My reading patterns have most definitely changed and shifted this year. I am no longer satisfied to read a single book by an author and move on. I feel the need to become completely absorbed by an author’s works in addition to whatever other sources are available (letters, essays, biography, autobiography, etc.) Instead of just one book at a time, I immerse myself in what feels more like reading projects. I am also drawn to classics, especially “loose, baggy monsters” and have read very little contemporary authors this year. I image that this pattern will continue into 2019.

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Filed under Autobiography, British Literature, French Literature, German Literature, Italian Literature, Kafka, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Nonfiction, Novella, Poetry, Russian Literature, Tolstoi, Virginia Woolf

Satisfying my Craving for Details: Autobiography, Auto-Fiction, and Letters

On one of our daily walks this week, my dear friend was telling me about a cousin she had lost touch with but through a series of different circumstances she had the opportunity recently to meet and reconnect with her family member.  My friend and her cousin had been close as children but in the last ten years had not spoken for a variety of reasons.  I was fascinated by what many would consider an ordinary story and, as is my habit, I asked my friend a plethora of detailed questions, some of which she could not answer.  She likes to tease me that I ask intricate details about a story, a character, a life, that “no one ever thinks of except you, Melissa”   I like to have a complete picture, I like to get lost in the details, I like to know what it is about life and fate that brings people together and drives them apart.  I think that my habit of incessant questioning, seeking out the minutiae, is what has drawn me to reading quite of bit of autobiography, auto-fiction and letters in the past year.

I read Annie Ernaux’s A Man’s Place and The Possession early in the year and had mixed feelings about both.  There are narrow details about specific events in these brief autobiographical novellas.  A Man’s Place, for instance, describes Ernaux’s relationship with her father and the particulars of his painful illness and death.  But the scope of the story was too narrow for me; I wanted to know more about the aftermath of her parent’s death and how it was situated in the broader context of her life.  In The Possession, Ernaux recounts a relationship she has with a man after her divorce.  Even though she is the one to break off the love affair, she becomes obsessed with him after she learns that he is living with another woman.  Once again, I wanted to know how the circumstances of this affair came about—how did he compare to her ex-husband, her father, and to subsequent intimacies in her life.  Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, which I read over the summer, felt similar in approach to Ernaux’s shorter autobiographical works.  Levy describes a very specific period in her life, the aftermath of her divorce and the adjustment to a new life but, once again, the narrow approach of her subject matter left me wanting more.

I was excited that Ernaux’s longer autobiography, The Years, was finally being translated and published in English because it might give me some of these answers I sought after reading her previous books.   The Years, told in the third person, sometimes third singular, sometimes third plural, is more of a social history than a traditional autobiography.  Ernaux describes the years between the end of World War II and the 2000’s within the broader context of what was happening in the world.  There are a lot of lists and the writing has more of a journalist tone than a personal narrative: “With the abbreviated memory one needs at sixteen simply to act and exist, she sees her childhood as a sort of silent film in colour.  Images of tanks and rubble appear and blur with others of old people who have died, handmade Mother’s Day cards, the Becassine albums, the First Communion retreat, games of sixes played against a wall.  Nor does she care to remember the more recent years, all awkwardness and shame—the time she dressed up as a music-hall dancer, the curly perms, the ankle socks.”  While I appreciate her unique approach to autobiography, I was unsatisfied for lack of personal details.  The lists, the detached narrative, became, at times, too generic and therefore uninteresting.

The recent trend towards auto-fiction feels like an attempt to turn what could be an mundane autobiography into a more engaging narrative that appeals to a wider audience.  Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s auto-fiction, for instance, have gained a lot of attention in the literary press and have been included on many a “best of” list.  I read the fourth book of Knausgaard’s autobiographical fiction and was captivated by his details, but, for some reason, I haven’t been drawn back to read any more of his books in the My Struggle series since.   I read the first two books in Cusk’s trilogy last year and enjoyed immensely the style of her writing as well as her storytelling.  But in the spring, as I read Kudos, the final book in the series, I realized that her approach to autobiography is difficult to sustain in multiple works.  There are, in my opinion, much better examples of aut0-fiction in other languages that have not gotten the same attention as Cusk or Knausgaard. Per Olov Enquist’s The Parable Book, Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners, Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow and Friederike Mayrocker’s Requiem for Ernst are all linguistically interesting and satisfied my need for details.

Since reading Kafka, I have been obsessed with the personal letters and correspondence of authors which are uniquely autobiographical.  Kafka’s letter to Felice, for instance,  that painstakingly describes their first meeting at Max Brod’s house could easily have been incorporated into an autobiography.  Kierkegaard’s surprisingly tender letters to Regine would have made a fascinating few chapters in his autobiography. Simone de Beauvoir’s letter to Nelsen Algren in which she describes her encounters with the sculptor Giacometti is the stuff of fascinating autobiographical material.  One of the first collections of personal letters that I ever read were those of Cicero which I was forced to translate during my first year of university.  I thought they were boring, self-centered and self-righteous and I haven’t given them very much attention since then.  But perhaps with my new appreciation for the autobiographical details contained in personal letters I ought to give poor Cicero another try.

Finally, this week I have begun reading Simone de Beauvoir’s three volume autobiography and I have been immediately captivated by the rich details of her childhood that she includes in the first book, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.  Maybe I am just a traditionalist, or maybe it’s my penchant for loose, baggy monsters, but of all the autobiography, auto-fiction, and letters I have read over the past year, Beauvoir’s work is by far the most satisfying, even at only 60 pages into the first volume.  Her writing is honest, straightforward and charming: “It doesn’t take much for a child to become the sedulous ape; I had always been willing to show off: but I refused to play the parts expected of me in false situations concocted by adults for their own amusement,” she writes.  A strong foreshadowing, I suspect, of how her character and strong personality develop throughout the course of her life.

On one final note (I promise), I bought Journey Into the Mind’s Eye by Lesley Blanch that was just reissued by NYRB Classics.  The introduction, written by Georgia de Chamberet describes this autobiography as an untraditional one: “the non-fiction novel” she calls it.  I’m interested to see where this fits into the genre of “auto” books I’ve described here.

What are your favorite autobiographies, auto-fiction, letters, and non-fiction novels?  Let me know in the comments!

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Filed under Essay, Nonfiction

Kudos by Rachel Cusk

The English word Kudos comes from the ancient Greek noun κῦδος which is actually a singular, nominative, neuter form, and means renown, praise or glory.  In Ancient Greek literature it is oftentimes used in relation to warfare and appears several times in Homer’s Iliad.  For the Homeric hero kudos is triumphant power or success on the battlefield which results in pretige, recognition and high rank.  Like these warriors on the battlefield, the characters in Cusk’s final installment of her trilogy,  are competing with each other for personal recognition.  Set at a literary festival and a literary conference in unnamed countries in Europe, most of the book contains stories from the lives of fellow authors and translators that Faye meets; in Kudos, Faye herself fades even further into the background of the narrative and we get fewer details about her own life than we did in Transit or Outline

When Faye first arrives at the literary festival she meets with her publisher and he gives her a glimpse into what the book industry believes is the best way for authors and everyone involved with them to gain kudos.  The “holy grail” for a publisher, he tells Faye,  “were those writers who performed well in the market while maintaining a connection to the values of literature.”  He goes on to explain his views of modern literature in such a harsh marketing climate:

Sometimes, he said, he amused himself by trawling some of the lower depths of the internet, where readers gave their opinions of their literary purchases, much as they might rate the performance of a detergent.  What he had learned, by studying these opinions, was that respect for literature was very much skin deep, and that people were never far from the capacity to abuse it.  It was entertaining, in a way, to see Dante awarded a single star out of possible five and his Divine Comedy described as ‘complete shit’, but a sensitive person might equally find it distressing, until you remembered that Dante—along with most great writers—carved his vision out of the deepest understanding of human nature and could look after himself. It was a position of weakness, he believed, to see literature as something fragile that needed defending, as so many of his colleagues and contemporaries did.

Several writers that she meets complain of their work not being properly recognized and their vying for attention among readers, reporters and other authors at these festivals gives the book a rather melancholy tone.  Written in the same style as her previous two novels—it’s been described as postmodern, indirect speech, autofiction, oral history—we occupy Faye’s world as a writer by seeing it from the perspective of those around her.  The common thread that runs through many of her colleagues’ stories is that, in this literary atmosphere of consumerism where money is the almighty ruler, there is very little kudos to go around for any of them.  A female translator and author complains that her books are a lot less well-known that those of the male authors’ works she has translated; a male author laments the fact that he is only popular and on the bestseller list now because he is writing with a partner and under a pseudonym; a harsh book critic argues that his volumes of poetry are not as widely recognized for their literary merit as they should be as a sort of pay back for all of the bad reviews he has written.

A teenager whose task it is to get writers from one venue to the next speaks about kudos, thus making it the only book of the trilogy that specifically mentions its title in the text.  Hermann had won this college’s highest award, named “Kudos”, which was given to both the top male and female students.   The boy doesn’t understand why gender needs to be a factor in an award and tells Faye his mother’s opinion about the “Kudos”:

His mother, for instance, believed that male and female were distinct but equal identities, and that having two awards was as far as it was wise to go in honouring human achievement.  But many other people felt that there should be only one award, given to the best student.  The caveat of gender, these people believed, obscured the triumph of excellence.  His mother’s response to that was interesting: if there was no caveat, she had said, then there was no way of ensuring that excellence would remain in a moral framework and not be put in the service of evil.

Just as in her previous two books, Cusk continues to examine gender roles, especially in terms of marriage and family life, throughout Kudos.  No one she meets is in a happy, stable marriage; many, if not most, are divorced and have an inimical relationship with an ex-partner that puts the children in the middle of the animosity.  Towards the end of the book, Faye is having lunch with two women, Felicia and Paola, who are in charge of her during the literary conference and she observes that the three women are sitting at a table in the restaurant under a reproduction of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist.  Felicia tells a heartrending story of how her ex-husband, through his spiteful and cruel behavior, has made her and her young daughter’s life difficult after the divorce.  Her concluding words about his treatment of them I found very chilling: “I had not, moreover, found freedom by leaving him: in fact what I had done was forfeit all my rights, which he had only extended to me in the first place, and made myself his slave.”

Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist. Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on Canvas. с 1610-1615

Paola’s retort about her own ex’s abuse is equally as disturbing and also serves as a bit of a rebuke to Faye who has recently gotten remarried: “‘It used to hurt so much when he pulled my hair,’ she said, ‘so it is good to talk about these things when your head is whirling with wine instead, and with the picture of the man’s severed head on a plate before my eyes.  What I don’t understand,’ she said to me, ‘is why you have married again, when you know what you know. You have put it in writing,’ she said, ‘and that brings with it all the laws.'”

The story that stands out in my mind the most as far as gender roles, family and marriage, the one I have read several times and keep pondering over, is that told by the gentleman whom Faye sits next to on the plane on her way to the literary festival.  It is interesting to get a male perspective of family life and I found his story just as sad as the others.  This well-dressed,  middle-aged man had been the director of a global management company, he tells Faye, and he was constantly traveling and away from his family.  Now at the age of forty-six he was retired but being with his family more often had not brought him the happiness and tranquility he had expected.  His family had gotten used to him being away so much, and his constant presence in their lives now felt intrusive.  He says to Faye, “‘Since I left work I find that I’m constantly getting into arguments with people.  My family complain that now I’m at home all the time, I’m trying to control them.  They haven’t actually said,’ he added, ‘that they wish we could go back to how things were.  But I know they’re thinking it.'”  Both males and females in Cusk’s final book of her trilogy struggle to find their place in a family, in a job, in society.  It is rather fitting that the text ends with a rather gross and sinister action that is also focused on gender.

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Review: Transit by Rachel Cusk

transitTransit, Cusk’s second book in what will be a trilogy of fictional autobiographies about the aftermath of her divorce, begins with an unsolicited email that Faye, the narrator, receives from a psychic.  The self-proclaimed astrologist says  that she is in possession of specific details about Faye’s life: “She wished me to know that a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky.”  Just as in Outline, the narrator deliberately leaves details about herself out of the narrative; we only get passing glimpses of her life through her interactions with others.  A visit to the hairdresser, a trip to a literary festival, a date, and a party at a friend’s home all become the backdrop for intriguing conversations and interactions that partly reveal Faye’s own story.

At the beginning of this story, Faye has moved back to London with her boys after her divorce and has bought an apartment that is a disaster.  It requires a complete overhaul and the demolition of her apartment by the contractors becomes a metaphor for her own life.  She sends her boys away to spend a few weeks with their father while her surroundings are being dismantled.  She describes her house to a man with whom she agrees to go on a date:

I felt cold.  There were builders in my house, I added.  The doors and windows were constantly open and the heating had been turned off.  The house had become a tomb, a place of dust and chill.  It was impossible to eat or sleep or work—there wasn’t even anywhere to sit down.  Everywhere I looked I saw skeletons, the skeletons of walls and floors, so that the house felt unshielded, permeable, as though all the things those walls and floors ought normally to keep out were free to enter.

There is always the feeling in a Cusk novel that a simple description, like this one about her renovated home, has a much heavier and deeper meaning than what we encounter at first glance.  There are several passages that I found throughout the book that I underlined and were worthy of multiple reads.

One additional aspect of Transit that I found particularly intriguing were the descriptions of Faye’s children.  Similar to Outline they are never physically present with Faye in the book.  We only get descriptions of them when they call her from their father’s home.  When the boys call her they are lost, or locked out of the house, or feeling alone; they are still in need of her maternal love and I felt sad that they were separated from her, even if only for a little while.  At the end of the book Faye is at a party and the boys call her cell phone because they are fighting and cannot solve their conflict.  They ask her for help and admit that their father is nowhere to be found.  There are additional hints at the father’s anger, maltreatment of Faye and lack of involvement in the boys’ lives.  I am very interested to see if Cusk will further explore the post-divorce family dynamic in the final book of the trilogy.

Fate, identity, love, marriage and transitions are all themes that Cusk explores though the interesting conversations she writes for her characters.  Cusk’s writing is both compelling and philosophical, a combination which so few writers are successfully able to achieve.

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Filed under British Literature, Literary Fiction

Conversations with Faye: My Thoughts on Outline by Rachel Cusk

My Review:

outlineWhen my daughter was in preschool and I started taking her to various birthday parties and playdates to which she would be invited by her friends I always felt awkward and out-of-place. I was oftentimes the only mother at these gatherings who had a career and an only child.  When I would confirm that my daughter is an only child I would get a look, a comment:  “Oh you only have one child.”  I felt as if having a single child made me a mother, but not enough of a mother to be considered a part of their club.  And after my daughter was born I remember various family members asking not if we were having more children but when.   Of the various people portrayed in Cusk’s Outline, I identified most with Angeliki, a writer of contemporary women’s fiction, who describes her marriage and her reasons for having one child with her husband.  Because of my experiences with how people react to my decision to have an only child ,Angeliki’s story and her words particularly resonated with me.  Her remark at the thought of having more than one child is startlingly honest, “I would have been completely submerged.”

In Rachel Cusk’s first book of a trilogy that is loosely autobiographical, a recently divorced author named Faye is traveling to London from Greece where she will teach a short writing workshop.  While on her travels she encounters various people like Angeliki who share the stories of their lives, their loves, their identities and their perceptions of the world.  It is through their stories that the author starts to realize how her own identity and perception of the world have had a dramatic shift since the dissolution of her marriage.  On the plane ride to Athens, she meets a man who was raised in Greece but was educated in English boarding schools.  She simply refers to him as “her neighbor” throughout the narrative as he proceeds to give her the details about the passion, progress and dissolution of two of his marriages.

While in Athens, Faye meets others—a writer, a publisher, a fellow teacher, her students—with whom she has lengthy conversations.  She goes on a boat ride and a swim with her neighbor from the plane where she observes another family having an outing.  As she notices the ways in which father, mother and children interact with one another in a mundane setting Faye observes:  “I was beginning to see in other people’s lives a commentary on my own.”  This simple yet profound statement signifies that the discussions with her friends and her acquaintances are continually reshaping and reforming her own identity and her own views of the world as a single woman, a single mother, and as a person that is no longer half of a couple.

Cusk’s writing is philosophical and meditative and she uses her talents to make simple settings appear unique and intriguing.  An airplane ride, a swim in the ocean, dinner at a seedy Greek restaurant are all seen from a new point-of-view and become vivid backdrops for Faye’s conversations during which people share the most intimate details about their lives.  Her description of the atmosphere on the plane also appears to be a commentary on the various lenses through which we view others:

The plane seemed stilled, almost motionless; there was so little interface between inside and outside, so little friction, that it was hard to believe we were moving forward.  The electric light, with the absolute darkness outside, made people look very fleshy and real, their detail so unmeditated, so impersonal, so infinite.

One subject, in particular, that runs throughout all of the conversations is marriage and family life.  Cusk’s book could have easily turned into a typical narrative oftentimes found in contemporary women’s fiction that presents one lamentation after another condemning marriage and lauding the single woman as a heroine of strength and fortitude despite the horrible personality flaws of an ex.  Cusk’s approach to writing about marriage is more intelligent and philosophical; she understands that life is complex and she reaches beyond the usual, fictional narrative to underscore these complexities.  Faye offers little detail about her own life to her various acquaintances, but when she does voice her opinions during theses conversations they are thought-provoking and profound.  She says to her neighbor on the plane,   “Among other things, a marriage is a system of belief, a story, and though it manifests itself in things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is ultimately mysterious.”

Cusk’s novel  is a meditation on life, love, relationships and our multilayered and ever-evolving perceptions of these things.  It will be very interesting to see how she continues her conversations about these topics in the next book of the trilogy entitled Transit.

For more interesting reviews and comments on Cusk’s books visit: Times Flow Stemmed and flowerville.

About the Author:

cuskRachel Cusk was born in Canada, and spent some of her childhood in Los Angeles, before her family returned to England, in 1974, when Cusk was 8 years old. She read English at New College, Oxford.

Cusk is the Whitbread Award–winning author of two memoirs, including The Last Supper, and seven novels, including Arlington Park, Saving Agnes, The Temporary, The Country Life, and The Lucky Ones.

She has won and been shortlisted for numerous prizes: her most recent novel, Outline (2014), was shortlisted for the Folio Prize, the Goldsmith’s Prize and the Bailey’s prize, and longlisted for Canada’s Giller Prize. In 2003, Rachel Cusk was nominated by Granta magazine as one of 20 ‘Best of Young British Novelists’

She lives in Brighton, England.

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